Of all the whiskey-based classic cocktails, the Manhattan is perhaps the most timeless. This simple yet stylish drink has endured both trend and political travesty over the course of its lifetime, which likely trailed the arrival of vermouth in America by the 1840s. It was so renowned in stylish drinking parlors of the 19th century that even after the Volstead Act of 1919 made drinking taboo on American shores, the Manhattan hopped a freighter and continued to be the expat belle of the ball abroad.
Still, it has known strife—after whiskey stocks took a hit during and after Prohibition, the Manhattan played second fiddle to the Martini for decades. And before bartenders began re-educating themselves, more than a few were made with vermouth long past its prime and garnished with neon red cherries. But the Manhattan clung to life even as so many other once-relished whiskey cocktails were all but lost to the shadows of drinking culture. Get to know the Manhattan from top to bottom with these six fun facts to sip on.
1. The Trifecta Carries the Torch
Whiskey (2 parts), sweet vermouth (1 part) and bitters (dash)—this is the everlasting crux of the Manhattan. In its early days, it did indeed at times have a few extra ingredients. In the 1892 book “The Flowing Bowl” by Only William (aka, William Schmidt), the ingredients for a Manhattan cocktail were listed as such: 2 dashes of gum [syrup], 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe; 2/3 drink whiskey and 1/3 drink wine vermouth, plus the suggestion of adding a little maraschino liqueur. Yowza. So while tinkering may have created some fun gilding of the lily, the core harmonic ingredients—whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters—remain the consistent winning combination that has outlasted all other fashions.
2. A Little Sweet, a Little Dry = Perfect
A subcategory of the Manhattan is the Perfect Manhattan—that is, 2 parts whiskey, 1 part equally divided sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters. “The thing about a Perfect is you have to be careful—you want it to be balanced. You want to try to get a good combo of flavor between sweet and dry,” says Susie Hoyt, the beverage director of The Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky. “You still want the cocktail to be pleasing to the palate to the extent that you go back for another sip.” If your Perfect leaves you parched, a little more sweet vermouth or a few drops of demerara simple syrup will do the trick, says Hoyt.
3. Rye or Bourbon? There Are No Wrong Answers
It’s likely that rye was the first spirit used to make a Manhattan as it was the first grain used to make whiskey in the U.S. But traceable reports seem to offer up both rye and bourbon. “The first time you see a recipe for the Manhattan that specified a particular type of whiskey was in Jerry Thomas’ “The Bar-tenders Guide” from 1887, and it called for rye,” says Phil Greene, the author of “The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail.” “Meanwhile, in the ‘Boston Herald’ of December 9, 1883, it describes the Manhattan as ‘a very good drink just before dinner. It is the ordinary vermouth cocktail with the foundation of first-rate bourbon whiskey.’ So take your pick,” says Greene. The thing to remember is rye is going to give you more savory spice, and bourbon more sweet, mellow vanilla notes, so let your palate be your guide.
4. Never Ever, Ever Shake It
The rule of thumb is this: Cocktails with juices, milk, cream or eggs are shaken, because these ingredients need the aeration, dilution and binding that happens inside the tins. But booze-forward cocktails like the Manhattan? Stir it, please! Stirring ensures dilution and chill, yes, but also maintains that weighty, silky texture from the base of spirit and fortified wine, as well as its gorgeous amber hue in your glass.
5. Match Your Proof to Your Vermouth
While you can’t go wrong sticking to the two-to-one whiskey-to-vermouth recipe, adjusting your vermouth to the spirit’s alcohol content can make your Manhattan sing. “If you’re making a Manhattan with an 80-proof Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, for example, and using something rich and viscous, like Carpano or Cocchi, back down off the vermouth,” says Hoyt. “You don’t want to drown out the flavor by doing a full one-ounce pour. I might do a half or a shy half ounce, and adjust up from there.” For higher-ABV whiskeys, she says, go for the full ounce.
6. Angostura Is the Standard, but It Isn’t the Whole Story
The sudden explosion of bitters has added interesting dimension to many a Manhattan, but spicy Angostura has remained the gold standard. That wasn’t always so. According to Greene, it’s historically up for debate. In 1884, the Manhattan made its debut in three different cocktail books with three different suggestions for bitters. “In George Winters’ ‘How to Mix Drinks,’ it calls for two or three dashes of Peruvian bitters. Joseph W. Gibson’s ‘Scientific Bar-Keeping’ just said ‘bitters.’ O.H. Byron’s ‘The Modern Bartenders’ Guide’ did in fact call for Angostura,” says Greene. A few years later, Jerry Thomas would suggest yet another: Boker’s. But in surviving Prohibition alongside the Manhattan, Angostura indeed wins the mantle of the you-can’t-go-wrong standard.